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Making the ‘Switch’

switch_how_to_change_things_when_change_is_hard-64742Why is the general consensus that change is often impossible and something that’s commonly approached with resistance, if not fear? Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Broadway Business) by Chip Heath and Dan Heath investigates this question and explores how some major changes (like getting married or starting a family) are embraced happily, while lesser-important changes (like getting a report done in time) meet major resistance.

Through their research, the authors found how some psychologists discovered that people have two separate “systems” in their brains. Drawing from research done in University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis, the authors explain how the rational system, called the Rider, is a thoughtful, logical planner. The emotional system, called the Elephant, is emotional, impulsive and instinctual. When these two systems are in alignment, change can come quickly and easily. When they’re not, change can seem impossible.

Anyone who’s ever slept in, overeaten, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, or refused to speak up in a meeting because of fear, has experienced a situation where the Elephant overpowers the Rider.

“The weakness of the Elephant, our emotional and instinctive side, is clear: It’s lazy and skittish, often looking for the quick payoff (ice cream cone) over the long-term payoff (being thin),” the authors note. “When change efforts fail, it’s usually the Elephant’s fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs. … Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.”

In situations where change seems hard, is it possible to line up the two systems? Is it possible to overcome our internal unbalance about change? The authors believe so. They studied people trying to make difficult changes, including people fighting to lose weight and activists battling seemingly impossibly problems such as child malnutrition. What the authors noticed was they all succeeded and they all had uncanny similarities in the strategies they employed.

Switch shows that successful changes follow a certain pattern, an arrangement anyone can use to make changes that matter, whether he or she is interested in changing the world or simply changing a corporate environment. As the Heath brothers say about their work: “We consider change at every level—individual, organizational, and societal. Maybe you want to help your brother beat his gambling addiction. Maybe you need your team at work to act more frugally because of market conditions. Maybe you wish more of your neighbors would bike to work.”

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